“Queen Esther is about to get eaten alive by aliens and then Mordechai swoops in to save her!”
Amit, my 7-year-old son, sliced the air with thin fingers outstretched to rescue an imaginary crowned damsel. “WHOOSH”! He exhaled loudly.
Eitan, my 9-year-old, turned to his brother, Amit. “How about the aliens kill Queen Vashti, King Ahashverosh’s first wife?”
I joined my sons at the dinner table and looked around quizzically.
What did aliens have to do with the Megillah, the Hebrew moniker for the Book of Esther that we read on Purim?
My boys read my furrowed brow and started giggling.
“Mom, this is my class assignment,” explained Yuval, my 10-year-old, sitting alongside them. “We’re writing modern takes on the ancient story.”
Oh! So this wasn’t the latest app for your tablet. Or a computer game for Purim gone haywire. Called Choose Your Own Megillah, it was the brainchild of Lisa Bernstein, Yuval’s Judaic Studies teacher at Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor. Ms. Bernstein wanted to make the text from 4th century BCE come alive for her 10- and 11-year-old students, thereby forging a personal connection with the Jewish tradition. Her strategy was both creative and playful.
Choose Your Own Megillah was fashioned on the popular Choose Your Own Adventure young adult book series. A reader assumes the role of the protagonist and at certain intervals, chooses options to determine what happens in the story, dictating the plot and its outcome. Each segment ends in a cliffhanger posing a question to its reader in second-person. Will you do X — or Y?
So, too, is the formula in Choose Your Own Megillah. At pivotal moments in the Book of Esther, the reader must decide whether to adhere to history — or try something new. Should Mordechai refuse to bow down to Haman, as he does in the original text, or acquiesce and genuflect for the sake of the Jewish people? Should Esther approach King Ahashverosh to plead for her people, as is told in the traditional story, or protest this risky course of action?
To understand the Purim story in the Megillah, or any story for that matter, a textual understanding of critical junctions is required. Rather than overtly teaching these critical crossroads, Bernstein cleverly spotlighted them by placing them on the stage as part of the Choose Your Own Megillah adventure.
“Fifth grade is the perfect time to introduce this kind of creative project,” explains Ms. Bernstein. “They have the writing skills as well as the familiarity with the characters and plot to allow for playing with the traditional storyline. Younger students still need to learn the characters and plot. Older students are likely to be more inhibited to change the text, or get carried away with narratives that are too risqué for a school setting.”
On this moonlit evening, Yuval and his younger brothers explored scenes right out of sci-fi films. But Choosing Your Own Megillah is not just cinematic. It is also highly educational. In depicting alternative scenarios, students draw on their imagination and problem-solving skills. Pressing pencils to paper, they draft tales that are spirited, adventurous, creative, silly. And if the spirit moves them, even scary.
“I give the students a great deal of freedom,” explained Ms. Bernstein.
For example, students are given license to capture the Megillah’s aggression. Reimagining violent scenarios from the traditional text tickles boys and girls alike. They come up with scenarios like these: Vashti stabs her husband, King Ahashverosh, to death. Esther drinks water intended to poison the king and dies. Mordechai suffocates Haman with his hat. “The students love killing off their characters,” mused Ms. Bernstein. “How often do kids get to explore these sorts of impulses at school?”
And boy, do they have fun doing it.
Faces flush. Eyes sparkle. Toothy grins. Naughty giggles. Loud whispering. Shhh! Don’t you want the book to be a surprise on Purim?
Students line up, papers in hand, angling to be checked by Ms. Bernstein. Is the story logical? Does it address the correct moment and time in the megillah? Is the scene too dark? Does it mesh well into the traditional plotline? And if it’s the alternate, “homemade” option, does it end right there, as it must? Then each child takes his or her final product and illustrates it. All the segments are compiled and presented in a booklet to the class on Purim.
Like in the Choose Your Own Adventure books, unpredictability leads to repeat readings. So does creating an interactive text that features multiple-choice options and diverse endings.
Of course, the question must be asked: Are we allowing these children to treat a sacred text with too much irreverence? In fact, one could suggest that this approach is organic to the spirit of Purim’s celebratory tradition of Nahafoch Hu, Hebrew for turning things on their head. And God isn’t directly mentioned in the Book of Esther, reminds Ms. Bernstein. “So it feels like there’s more liberty to play.”
Even the name of this holiday, “Purim,” means lottery, a word that resonates with randomness. It’s a story that, if not for the invisible hand of God, could have truly gone either way.
And at least for one hopeful student, it did.
Two years ago, Jonah Seinfeld-Chopp was asked to script a creative alternative to Haman’s murderous musings after parading Mordechai through the streets of Shushan. Ms. Bernstein provided an alternative prompt that alluded to reconciliation: “The king has just honored Mordechai. He’ll never bow down to me now. Maybe I should change my law about bowing down to me and make friends with him and the Jews.”
Jonah thought and thought. And came up with this response:
“Geez, these Jews will not bow down to me! I think I’ll just give up. Maybe their religion is good… I’ll marry Mordechai. Maybe that will show that I respect them. I’m going to propose to Mordechai.
Two days later… Mordechai said, “Yes!”
In an unexpected example of Nahafoch Hu, the consummate evil enemy turns into a modern, peacemaking savior.
How’s that for Choosing Your Own Megillah?